In the West, some observers, including journalists and academics, view the movement as a bizarre mixture of calisthenics and Eastern philosophy that can hardly be taken seriously. But that's not how the Chinese Politburo sees it.
Politburo members think about nothing so much as maintaining their power. And what they have told us by their actions is that they believe Falun Gong to be a dangerous threat to their regime. Their savage repression of Falun Gong over the last year shows just how much they fear it.
Why does this religious group terrify China's rulers?
The Chinese regime is facing a crisis of legitimacy. Its right to rule is based on Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, yet few believe in the old Maoist ideology any longer. How, then, can the communist system and the absence of freedom now be justified?
China's rulers are trying to provide an answer that appeals above all to pragmatism: Allow us to rule because only we can provide stability and prosperity. Of course, the Chinese people know that stability and prosperity do not require repression. They see democracy and stability in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, as well as in the West. Indeed, with the introduction of the Internet and satellite television, more Chinese know more about freedom in the world than ever before.
All this has led to the demise of communism as a belief system that offered credible answers to the population's existential questions. But since individuals need to believe in something, the Politburo's great concern now is that the vast population they control will seek answers in other systems, such as Christianity--or Falun Gong. Viewed in this light, it is no surprise that repression of religious freedom in China has gotten much worse in recent years.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported last year that "the government of China and the Communist Party of China discriminate, harass, incarcerate, and torture people on the basis of their religion and beliefs." The State Department's most recent report on human rights, issued in late February 2001, said this about religion in China in the year 2000: "During the year, the Government's respect for religious freedom continued to deteriorate. The Government intensified its harsh crackdown against the Falun Gong movement and extended its actions to 'cults' in general. Various sources report that approximately 100 or more Falun Gong adherents died during the year while in police custody; many of their bodies reportedly bore signs of severe beatings or torture, or were cremated before relatives could examine them. A number of...Protestant house-church groups were banned. House-church groups in northeastern China reported more detentions and arrests than in recent years, and in some areas officials destroyed hundreds of unregistered houses of worship."
Day after day, Falun Gong followers coordinate their efforts secretly, display their commitment and great bravery by demonstrating publicly, and act with complete independence of the Communist Party and China's government. For the Politburo, this is its worst nightmare come true.
At an early 2001 meeting of the Chinese leadership, President Jiang Zemin is reported by CNN to have said, "If we can't exterminate the cult soon, this will be seen as a major weakness of the Communist Party. The authority and prestige of the party is at stake."
The repression of religion is a characteristic trait of communist regimes, and we see it now in Vietnam just as we do in China, and for the same reasons. Loyalty to the party, in any communist system, supersedes all other commitments. But for believers, the party cannot claim priority over religious commitments. For the believer, right and wrong must be measured by religious standards and cannot be defined by party officials.
Believers choose their religious leaders without regard to party dictates. For the believer, religious literature must be distributed freely, even if it violates the regime's attempts to control the printing presses, fax machines, mass media--and now, the Internet.
Falun Gong's successful use of the Internet to permit members to communicate with each other and with the group's exiled leader, and inform each other of forthcoming demonstrations, is another nightmare for the Communist Party.
Chinese officials persecute Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama, Muslims in Xinjiang Province, and all other believers who function outside state-controlled official groups. But Falun Gong has suffered the most in recent months.
This is because the oligarchs running the show in Beijing see it as the greatest threat to their power, and in a sense they are right. It has grown faster than any other spiritual or religious group during the last few years and has spread throughout the country, even into the army and--it is said--into the party itself.
China's rulers know their history. They know all about the episode we in the West call the Boxer Rebellion. In 1900, tens of thousands of Chinese joined a secret society called the I-ho ch'üan ("Righteous and Harmonious Fists"). They practiced traditional martial arts (thus the name "Boxers") and spread like wildfire, rising against the Ch'ing dynasty and foreign influence in China. The Politburo sees in Falun Gong the ghost of past rebellions against situations too repressive and unjust to be borne.
The people of China have, for more than a century, sought to modernize their country. The republic under Sun Yat-Sen was one failed effort, just as the regime of Mao and his successors is, in a far more brutal way, another. Individuals in Chinese societies such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and in the Chinese diaspora in the West, have displayed a fantastic ability to modernize and adapt to Western social, political, and economic systems while maintaining their culture. This has allowed them to achieve wealth, prominence, and influence in many societies around the world.
However, China itself has not been able to follow suit. Communism has failed, and the people of China know it. The growth of religion in China, and the rapid spread of Falun Gong, is a new attempt by the Chinese people to add order to their lives, decently and in accordance with Chinese tradition.
No one knows when the regime will finally collapse, as some day it surely will, just as communism has fallen in Russia and Eastern Europe. But this we do know: The terrible fear China's rulers have of Falun Gong is justified, and their profound sense of their own illegitimacy is its basis. When in the future a free China looks back for key turning points on the road to change, the rapid spread of Falun Gong will be looked upon as having been of profound historical importance.